Saturday, March 19, 2011

white trash art comment

How to comment on the degeneration of American society, the gaping interstices in which the poor, the cultureless, the callous, the consumers of kitsch, the fans of heavy metal, the drinkers of cheap beer fall? Where is their voice? What is their voice? What should be their voice?

One strategy: found object, synthetic documentation from within the void.

trash humping

The "fanzine" which accompanies the DVD of Harmony Korine's latest movie, Trash Humpers begins with a "synopsis" of the film, which ends:

Crudely documented by the participants themselvs, we follow the debased and shocking actions of a group of true sociopaths the likesof which have never never been seen before. Inhabiting a world of brokendreams and beyond the limits of morality, they crashagainst a torn and frayed aAmerica . Borderin on an ode to vandalism, it is a new type of horror - palpable and raw.

(Typos reproduced as accurately as possible.) Trash Humpers features 4 "elderly" protagonists with identical faces who vandalize, crack cheap jokes, mingle with white trash eccentrics, and, most frequently, "hump" trash (cans, bags, also electrical poles, trees, and pretty much anything else at hand).

Later in the "fanzine" (mostly nighttime photos of the films protagonists) we find this phrase (scrawled in deliberately childlike handwriting, like much of the document):

this movie is more like an artifact, its like something found somewhere and unearthed an old vhs tape that was in some attick or buried in some ditch

Now, Trash Humpers does seem to be shot on video, and it's clearly been run through several generations to of vhs copying to degrade the image quality and introduce the familiar analog noise of an old videotape.

On the other hand, before its video release, it was shown on the big screen in 35mm. The DVD packaging lists New York, Toronto, AFI, Rotterdam, Copenhagen, London, and SXSW festivals. This is hardly a screening pattern typical of a found object. The supposed "fanzine," is clearly not made by any fans of the film (as the fallacious and self-aggrandizing quotations above should indicate)—one can only hope it was not made by Harmony himself given the flagrant inconsistency of vision and message between the movie and the packaging / "fanzine" insert.

Compare this with August Underground, a film which also was deliberately degraded by several generations of video copying, also was shot handheld, simulating the homemovies of socio/psycho paths, also features them marauding through a desolate suburban landscape, and also features faux-snuff (though this plays a much more prominent role than in the few scenes in Trash Humpers). Arguably, if there is a purpose to August Underground (beyond its status as gore-exploitation (and maybe there isn't any such further purpose)), then it is as a commentary on a disaffected portion of society, with no sense of social boundaries, a lack of respect not just for law and property, but for human beings themselves, a complete selfishness and entitlement which permits all, at the cost of permitting only the most base repetitive and meaningless actions. (i.e. the exact same purpose we might plausibly attribute to Trash Humpers)

[Tellingly, it appears that once one rejects boundaries and respect, once one rejects the humanity of one's fellows, there isn't much of interest, value, or complexity left for one to do.]

August Underground: eating chips without paying for them, prelude to a grisly crime

August Underground, however, rather famously, preserved the appearance of found object in its initial distribution. It was mailed in neutral packaging on an unmarked VHS tape to likely reviewers of extreme gore, and thereafter passed through the underground amongst aficionados of the genre.

Of course, if Trash Humpers attempts to create appearance of a found object and fails, this in itself isn't a criticism unless the success of the movie stands or falls on this illusion. And in order to answer this question, we need to understand the point of the endeavor: what would it mean for Trash Humpers to succeed?

We could go to the director's own comments on this point, but they're largely unconvincing:

Much more convincing are the comments he makes in character, while driving the other trash humpers to a new location for humping, presumably (note, this monologue is completely out of character with the giggling and leering which characterizes the rest of the film, amply demonstrated in the first 1:12 of this vid):

Safe to say, there's to some extent a glorification, and to some extent a recrimination of a certain type of devil-may-care, libertarian rejection of social norms and morays. A "do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law" attitude that originates, not in mystical visions, but in a combination of a permissive society, devoid of overseers, and a lack of motivation to instill the order / structure that such overseers might themselves have implemented.

Of course, the classic source for this attitude is an explicit rejection of authority. I hump trash because it is forbidden, and because the powers that forbid it are too ineffectual to prevent me. A sense of rebellion and degeneracy which appears in all of Korine's works, though perhaps the closest in spirit here is his Gummo.

If this is correct, though, then the motivation behind the serial killing in August Underground is actually more complex than that in Trash Humpers—yes, there's the libertarianism, yes there's the "because I can," but there's also a de Sade power-trip, a getting off on using others as objects, as means rather than ends. The trash humpers, however, seem oblivious to the owners of the trash, or the effect their actions have on them, they are merely amusing themselves through juvenalia.

So, suppose both the point is correctly identified, and that the criticism is warranted (i.e. there is a degenerate and selfish libertarianism at the heart of the American experience), then how does the "found object" strategy serve to make that point? The idea here is to produce an artifact of that degeneracy, and comment on it through immersion: you the viewer are forced to confront a side of society which you do not (yourself) participate in, recognize their practices, and reflect on the circumstances which brought them about.

Fair enough, but then the crucial element for creating the desired effect is authenticity. To the extent that the viewer is not convinced by the purported found object, he is divorced from the experience, and no longer reflects upon the circumstances which produced said object, but upon the filmmakers own ineptness and confusion in thinking he understood it.

Which brings us to acting. The primary characters in Trash Humpers are four supposed old folk, all played by quite young folk (e.g. Harmony and his wife Rachel) wearing old folk latex masks (the effect being all the more disturbing because the masks are all identical). To be fair, these characters are quite compelling and, besides the obvious surrealism of their faces being identical, are convincing as demented artifacts of a corrupt society. Unfortunately, the secondary characters they interact with are totally unconvincing, bombastic in the delivery of their lines like any second rate actor, and clearly the products of Hollywood and not the suburbs. As such, their presence undermines the authenticity of the film and destroys any purported status it pretends to as found object, and thus also as insight into the American experience.

Unconvincing second-rate actor smirking and breaking character when supposedly he is being threatened by a humper

For comparison, Harmony's first film, Gummo, brilliantly combined professional actors with local amateurs caught candidly engaged in their usual white trash activities. Although it didn't purport to be a found object (using voice overs, still frames, and other clever filmmaking techniques), it succeeded far better in immersing the audience in a particular experience.

Much more convincing than anything in Trash Humpers

Likewise, the August Underground series succeeds in immersing the viewer in a plausibly naturalistic scenario. Of course, not all films from Toetag have succeeded equally, nor does the extremity of the content reflect as widespread a social disease (although, one must assume here the trash humping stands in for a broader category of social pathologies—trash humping itself may actually be more rare than serial killing for all I know), nevertheless, the abstract point, about subversion of libertarian values in an American wasteland, is even more effectively conveyed. In fact, I'll go one step further—not only is the acting more convincing in the August Underground series, but the characters themselves (when not engaged in their pathological behavior) are more like us. Ordinary folk one might see walking the streets.

Bumfights, a true found object

Better even still, both on the realism front, and the social commentary front, however, are the actual found objects of the nihilistic American suburbs. I'm thinking here of the countless shock / trash videos to be found in underground music stores, or available for cheap download—actual documents of social deviancy, not faux documents of such by an alienated and pampered NYC art house elite. A prime example for comparison are the Bumfights videos.

If you want to know the sickness that lies in the interstices of the libertarian American dream, then Bumfights will certainly show it to you. Of course, videos such as this exploit the poor and homeless (arguably true of Gummo as well?—even if to a significantly lesser degree). Certainly, it would be reprehensible to encourage videos such as Bumfights by purchasing them or in any way allowing more money or power to end up in the filmmakers' hands. And to watch such videos with glee, to empathize, not with the desperate, the victims, but with the psychopaths, the filmmakers, the de Sadian exploiters, would be sick sick sick.

On the other hand, what to think of the audience for a film like Trash Humpers? Its protagonists are also killers and vandals and exploiters. It also has no plot, but is just a sequence of degradation-glorifying vignettes. Only, unlike in Bumfights, or August Underground, the exploited are unconvincing, are absent or patently in league with their supposed exploiters. Wink wink, nod nod—we're all really intellectuals here! And the cost? No empathy, no redemption. At least the goal of depicting the anarchy in the interstices succeeds with the true found object, or the authentic found object. But without that authenticity, there can be no empathy, and without empathy, there can be no redemption: neither spiritually, nor aesthetically.

Personally, I'm much more worried about whatever head-up-his-ass pretentious nihilist dickwad who awarded Trash Humpers the grand prize at a documentary film festival than the skate punk degenerates who paid money for Bumfights. At least the latter feel something.

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